Rains this week have brought temporary relief to a broad section of America's parched farms. But the rain so far has not broken the severe drought - and in some cases, it came too late. The drought has already slashed production of two of the nation's three major crops - corn and wheat. Forecasters and crop analysts are now waiting to see what will happen to the third major crop: soybeans.
``It's probably too late for most of the corn,'' says Peter Leavitt, an agricultural meteorologist with Weather Services Corporation. But ``beans can continue to benefit from the moisture.''
Rains early this week brought much-needed moisture to the southeastern part of the corn belt - areas of Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky where the drought had hit hardest. Another broad band of rain was predicted to fall along an axis from central Kansas to east-central Missouri to the southern border of Pennsylvania.
In many of these farming areas, the dryness has continued for so long that much more moisture is needed to end the drought, Mr. Leavitt says. And this week's rain only represents a shift, not a break, in the weather pattern that has produced the devastating drought.
Analysts now refer to this summer's dry conditions as the worst in 50 years. US Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng, who began a three-day tour of nine drought-stricken states yesterday, called it the worst dry period since the 1870s.
Last week, the Agriculture Department estimated that the 1988 corn crop would drop 26 percent from last year's totals. Analysts say the damage is probably much worse than that. An earlier, informal estimate by the National Corn Growers Association put the decline at 42 percent.
``You can write the '88 corn crop off in terms of any beneficial effects of rain,'' says Michael Hall, the association's executive vice-president.
Indiana has been probably hardest hit by drought, so this week's rains were especially welcome. ``It's the most widespread rain since planting,'' says Don Griffith, an extension agronomist at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind. ``Here in Lafayette we got two inches. Things looked pretty good this morning.''
But with the damage done so far, some 40 percent of the state's corn crop and 20 percent of its soybean crop has already been irrevocably lost, according to estimates by agronomists at Purdue.
What the rain can do is stop further deterioration, Mr. Griffith adds. Much of the corn is already lost because the crop's crucial pollination period has largely passed. Thus, the rain can only help that portion of the corn that did pollinate.
``It's going to help the corn crop, but not as much as it's going to help the soybeans,'' Griffith says. Since soybeans are more drought resistant than corn, the recent rains can have a greater impact.